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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online - Review

I suggest opening all screenshots in a new tab.

Me just starting out.

I've dedicated most of my gaming time to this to attempt to give the best review possible. It's still gonna have some holes due to parts I may have missed from not progressing far enough, but I'll try to make do. And, as per request of psychon, I come bearing screenshots.

As you may or may not know, I've played through a handful of MMOs, too many being point-and-click disasters. Honestly, I wouldn't have played SMT:I for a week if it wasn't that. Hell, I wouldn't have reviewed it, I would've made a small side note saying, it's a point and click, gtfo, kthnxbai.

But thank god it's not.

Shin Megami Tensei:Imagine is a game that follows a pretty linear plot line where the world is based somewhere inbetween SMT and SMT:2. For those of you who aren't sure, Persona is the spinoff the Shin Megami Tensei, and so is the Digital Devil Saga. I know Atlus loves itself, but in all honesty, their narcissism is justified....

From what I've played so far (up to level 25, when you acquire your Demon Buster License), the story is lackluster and basically a large tutorial. You have side quests given by NPCs, and mainstream quests given by your tutor known as Snakeman. SMT:I takes place in a post apocalyptic world in which everyone nuked each other and then nuked some more under the influence and introduction of the "demons." The game takes place in Tokyo when people have begun to rebuild. The Japanese have built a gigantic tower in attempts to restore mankind what what resulted was a stir amongst the demons. People, fearing that this tower and its ominous aura, have begun to take the tower Shinjuku Babel. You play a survivor whose mission was to meet a demonbuster and explore Home II (an underground shelter for the Japanese). After a terrible accident and ordeal with a powerful demon, you find yourself awake in Home III under the wing of Snakeman. Thus, your journey begins.

First off, I've actually played too little. Once you acquire your demonbuster's license is when the game starts to pick up. Each player can go to a specific alignment (Law, Neutral, Chaos) and you move closer and closer to a certain alignment as you make specific decisions in the story.

I'm not gonna mince words.
What hooked me to this game was the battle system. The fighting is timed like Mabinogi. Every attack has a charge time, and a delay. Then each attack has a specific property that it's strong against and weak against. Like Mabinogi, you have attack,guard, spin, counter and rush (instead of strike), but this is the last mabinogi reference I'll make. From here on out, it's SMT only. Attacks take priority over rush, rush takes priority over guard, and guard takes priority over attack. The main focus of the battle is to either, extend your enemies delay to the point where you can land a solid blow, or deal consistent damage while finding a way to compensate for the building delay.

What's extremely interesting about SMT:I is that, the more of the same type of attack you deal, the longer your delay becomes. This applies to ranged characters as well. As you use more normal ranged attacks, the time it takes to reload the gun and ready up a shot is longer over consecutive attacks. So the game is really forcing the players to learn to mix skills and find strategies that help deal the most damage over the shortest period of time or deal damage without getting hit. In this sense, while stats matter a lot to how your character develops, the way a person plays can greatly affect the battle outcome. You can have lower levels taking on much stronger monsters simply because they're skillful. It's games like Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine, Mabinogi, (last one... really... I promise) and Age of Conan that push the envelopes of MMOs. I want a battle system that's fun, not just click, click, click, hotkey, another hotkey, click. MMOs are pure grinding, and the least developers can do is help alleviate the grinding madness.

Stats are based off of allocated points. You are given a number of points per level that you can allocate into Strength, Vitality, Magic, Intelligence, Speed, and Luck. The stat distribution is a bit unorthodox however. For example, speed only deals with long range damage, there is no dodging. I honestly have no idea what Magic is for, I know intelligence increases MP more than Magic does, so I'm assuming Magic is for magic damage. What this gives is a lot of freedom for multiple builds. While you have the standard Melee, Magic, Ranged category. You can now have different Melee types (Berserker vs. Sentinel) or have a magic ranged type. Needless to say, its free form stat building also gives much freedom for screwing up. Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine is supposedly a "free" MMORPG meaning that it'll probably follow the basics of microtransaction business methods. So, extra characters, and stat resets will probably be their income as well as special items and demons.

I decided to be a gunner in Closed Beta. I was tired of being the berserker or Priest in other MMOs. When this is released, I'm probably gonna have at least 2 characters though.

You can shoot all the way over there, from over here!

You can even....

Dodge Magic and Bullets!

New skills are based off a repetition usage system. Basically, your abilities are put into specific categories known as "expertise." The more you use a specific skill in an expertise, the more it grows. Expertise are grouped as followed: As you use a specific skill, that expertise gains points. Once you reach 100 points in that expertise, you gain a rank, and every 10 ranks = a class level up. Meaning that every class is 1000 points. Not all expertise however, have 10 classes. Certain expertise have only up to 1 class (with 0 Class being default). It's safe to say that every class has at least ONE skill with some classes having multiple skills. For example, the destructive magic class has 4 skills at Class 0 (Rank 1, 2 in rank 5 and rank 7). As you can see from the following screenshot, you'll notice a couple things. First, there's a max point. While this increases ever 10 levels, it DOES mean that you're "restricted" to a certain build, so it's best to have a faint idea of what you want to do and then slowly refine your build as you start to hit the cap. You'll notice that there's a red arrow next to some of them while there's a gray minus next to others. Because skills are placed in specific categories and a handful of skills are probably inadvertently used, you can decide which expertise will grow. This will help refine your build as you can grow an expertise to a certain class and then stop it's growth without having to worry about using a particular skill less. It's a great system from what I see.

So, there's the battle system and growth system. Now for the part that separates Shin Megami Tensei from the pool of MMOs. SMT:I THRIVES off of using demon companions as partners in hunting. The main focus is not only learning the battle system for yourself, but learning how to function properly with your demon companion. If you take a look at the screenshots, I want you to take a look at the bottom left hand side. That's your hotkey bar. The first 8 buttons are dedicated to demon skills and can be only used for demon skills. The rest are yours to use. In battle, demons (both friend and foe) follow the same battle tactic, so once you have become proficient in being skilled alone, you now add your demon to the picture. It's not "like" controlling two characters at once, you ARE controlling two characters at once. With a demon companion, character builds have stepped up another level. Although demon stats aren't controlled by points like players are, each demon still has a specific build that it follows. So now you can have a mage dedicated to attacking while having a demon that can be used to distract and take hits for the mage. Or gunners can have a close range demon to help deal additional damage and flinch the enemy so that it can help offset the increasing delay between shots.

So, how DOES one acquire a demon companion? Two ways, quest and direct interaction. You have a set of skills that allow you to talk directly to the demon. If your luck (actual, not stat) is good and you play your cards right, you can convince a demon to come along with you.

When you start off, you get a choice of Greeting, Taunt, and Threaten. If you decide to build up your conversation expertise, you'll have access to more skills such as bribing.

Some times, it's necessary to be a bit more....aggressive...

Surprisingly, it's much more complex than just spamming one conversation skill and hoping. What I noticed over time was that different demons respond differently to different skills. Certain demons respond well to threatens and level plays a factor in which demon is more likely to respect you. To put it in very simple terms, there are two values that the demon has in terms of conversation. Interest and Respect. If you want a demon to come along with you, you need to have both values at a specific point. If you use greeting too often, I noticed that high level demons just ignore you, and you're forced to kill it. By mixing skills you're changing the different values to a point where chances of it joining are high. Also, certain conversation skills can "insult" it which results in negative points all around (They actually get "defensive," a guard marker appears as if you struck a shield). Some demons respond well to an aggressive threat or a taunt while becoming aggressive at weak, optimistic greetings. Some demons are simply just too stupid to realize you want them to join you and require you to be more direct. For example, I taunted a slime telling it to hit me if it can, to which I received a response of "Uh... Okay" whereas an Angel would respond "Do not try to provoke me."

Demons play a big role in the game. You are able to fuse demons to make more powerful ones and demons also have an affection rate. Depending on the affection rate they can also deal more damage, give you items, and have a more advanced AI that supports you better. Maybe it's just me, but I noticed my "Linked by fate" demon attacked more often and was in better synch with my actions than my "Looking to Betray" demon which I had to manually control most of the time and I've done multiple dungeon runs on both.

You can even do a triple fusion which requires 3 party members each sacrificing one demon. The party host has to also pay for all the fusion costs and compensate the others.

As some of you may already know my policy but, I feel that no game is perfect and Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine also has it's flaws.

First off, I'd like to be informed when learning skills of a certain class are a "choice" or a "take all" section. What I mean is, for destructive magic, there are multiple skills in a single rank, and you're able to learn all the skills, however for melee classes, it's a choice between two skills. Because there isn't any forewarning I ended up choosing a skill that I wasted time for. Yes, there will be a reset function via microtransaction to help undo errors, but it would be nice not to make that error in the first place.

Second, Party Experience distribution is a bit odd. Even if you're not in the same zone, you share a small amount of experience (less than 50%) from your kills to your party members. When the experience is distributed, it's first broken down individually and then spread amongst the group. Meaning, the experience you receive is first based on the percentage of damage you dealt the monster and THEN divided by the number of party members (Max:5). This tends to leave a handful of experience lost to rounding as well as a chatlog riddled with numerous exp gains. Yes, you can technically set the chatlog to not display exp gains but for someone who's focused on getting levels in the most efficient way possible, it's somewhat important. You can't change the EXP rule by the way. The "random" loot drop rule is REALLY random and not based any turn based function, so it's possible for a guy who did no work to get all the loot. You can change it to most damage dealt, but I kinda expected to somewhat be an even distribution.

You can move with either WASD or clicking on the mouse. My main issue with this is that A and D AREN'T strafe. They're turning the character a certain direction. What's even more odd is that when you let go of the turn key, it takes an extra step in that direction thus not aligning the camera with the character... ever. If you move with the mouse, there IS no pathfinding algorithm. If you collide with a rock, you stop.

If a weapon has slots, you can only upgrade the slots rising incrementally. Meaning, you have to go to +1 first to get to +2 and +2 first to get to +3. If you screw up and accidentally press any LOWER number, it gets overwritten. While I understand this is needed for weapon balancing so that people can't just start off with +8, it also makes the +1 items EXTREMELY valuable and distort the economy of the game (the game has "recommended" prices to sell items but it gets more expensive the higher you get.) From what I see, the prices in reality will start off high, and then get cheaper as you reach around +4-6 and then get much more expensive as it gets harder to find items above a certain threshold...

It's not my place to say but... the community is already becoming a little sour. Because a specific story quest gives 100,000 bonus EXP (considered a lot at any level)for defeating a boss, you have a handful of high levels who don't really go to their intended areas and just camp a specific dungeon asking if people "need help" on a specific dungeon. (You see dungeons work in a way such that you need a specific item to access a specific dungeon. You can only receive the quest dungeon item once, and people want to farm it since the bonus is extended to all party members undivided) and that's just an example.

Here are some screenshots to cap off this review.

GO Shin Megami Tensei!!!

A forest setting to change the scenery a bit.

It looks like I'm gonna need more ammo....

P.S. I played a bit of Persona 4 (So I guess I lied about dedicating most of my time...) and I'm liking it. Already have an idea of what to write, but I'm gonna wait until I get really involved.


Psychon said...

Holy, fucking hell!
I'm so looking forward to this.
Thanks for the screenies and in-depth review, hopefully it doesn't go OB when I start playing P4 though. D:

Anonymous said...

Ah, well, I tried SMT and got bored with it rather quickly. I can't stand the setting though, so that's my problem.

I did like Mabinogi and still play that though. Nice review, but the intense amounts of grind later on are a pretty big turn off.

Zerreth said...

I'll have to admit. The color palette set for SMT is kinda faded and dim. I guess that's the point considering its post-apocalyptic setting, but even the more populated areas and the major churches seem a bit lacking.

I prefer it over WoW though. I think wow is TOO colorful and almost... clay-animation-like.

Zhi Ming said...

yup this game is indeed charming. started playing it since cbt and its been a blast, shame about the later-game content though, from 30+ onwards, it just became a dungeon grind and the combat system just seemed annoying after awhile (higher level dungeons take aaaages)....

p.s. - just realised that this entry is old but...yeah :D good article, i liked it

Zerreth said...

I know what you mean. Assuming Aeria games doesn't remove accounts, I still have a 40+ that's completed all the story quests so far. I'm kinda waiting until the Japanese edition is updated.

I'm also waiting for the US edition to come out with the Season 2 skills. It makes being a rapid gunner so much more worth it XD. I'm getting out DPS'ed and out ranged by magic gunners.

/-\ir Jordan said...

i started playing SMT:I yesterday. there are many things you can do andi dont find grinding too much. with 5 hours u can get around 1.5mil and get access to equipment that is really essential for lvling. after that if you get lvls then ull also get good drops from mobs.